An Interview with Louis Hasbrouk of Pelham Auto
[Editor's note: This interview was conducted June 24th, 2009 as part of the research for the book Building Co-operative Power by Janelle Cornwell, Michael Johnson, and Adam Trott. It has been lightly edited for length and readability.]
Michael Johnson: I’m talking with Louis Hasbrouck, one of the founders of Pelham Auto. So can you start with the beginning of what Pelham Auto was, and how it was originally set up, and how you were part of it?
Louis Hasbrouk: I got out of the service in 1970 and came back to the Valley to work. I worked as a mechanic in several places and opened my own garage in Pelham in 1972 — originally a gas station and garage, one bay. I’d been working in my back yard on Volkswagens for a number of years, both before I went to service and afterwards. And initially it was mostly family members working at the gas station. It was myself, my sister, and my brother-in-law got out of the service in, I believe 1972 or 1973.
Back up, Pelham Auto started August of 1972. My brother-in-law got out of the service in 1973 and came to work with me shortly after he got out. And we went along for a couple of years with one or two employees fixing Volkswagens.
We had an opportunity in 1974 to buy some land in Belchertown right on the Pelham line and took the opportunity. Still myself as a sole proprietor, but essentially with the same group of employees that had been part of the organization from the beginning. Uh, I say "we" — it’s ingrained because I didn’t do it by myself, but essentially my father and I’s partnership bought the land and built the building which is presently the parts store of Pelham Auto. It was 1974 — bought it in 1974, early in 1974, and moved the garage from Pelham down to the new building in Belchertown late in 1974. I think at that point there were four full time employees. We had a lot of extra space; we got more employees; we got rid of the gas station part; we just had auto repair. It was quite a successful business and we saved our money and uh,…
Over the period of time from 1975 to 1977, it became more and more apparent to me that this was a business that was the sum of the people working there, as opposed to something that I had engineered and ran. And we began talking about how to organize as a collective. There was a lot of discussion about partnership — a corporation that wasn’t set up as a collective. The two pieces — the legal aspect of it: it’s simply a corporation. There are a lot of legal organizations that we could use, but it’s set up as regular corporation. The collective aspect was a separate discussion to the legal organization.
I myself personally have a long history of collective functioning, starting with growing up in a family of 9 siblings, and that establishes a kind of cooperation. One thing that I think, that is a really common — and one of perhaps the most driving aspects of a collective — is the sense that there is a group of people who have banded together to succeed in a situation, in a society or a community. And 9 brothers and sisters gives you a real good sense of a group of people working together. I also was involved, when I was in the service, with the Movement for a Democratic Military, which is another relatively old group. And old being back in the 60’s, and I think Movement for a Democratic Military has its roots in the Dutch military, which is run very much as a democratic organization.
Michael Johnson: I want to pick up on one part there. The growing up with 9 children, and really getting that cooperation makes things work. But not everybody takes it to a political space and it seems like getting involved with the democratic military activity, you already had formulated a political awareness or something?
Louis Hasbrouk: The inception of my political awareness is not real clear to me, except that I think that growing up in Amherst… Amherst is an interesting community. There’s a lot of, for lack of a better word — intellect, in Amherst and I think an exposure to a lot of ideas that perhaps wouldn’t show up in, say, Brockton, and the exposure to those ideas even in junior high school. I can remember one of my teachers in junior high school that was an unabashed leftist, and even by high school I was reading some of Che Guevara’s stuff. And I think he was still alive at that point. It was very revolutionary.
The relationship of the United States with Cuba, I was quite aware of. And to me, the changes in Cuban society were quite appealing. The idea that it had gone from upper-class/lower-class, to much more of an equitable class. And I think one of the things I can remember in high school hearing about, that was impressive to me, was the difference between the literacy rate in Cuba in 1959 and the literacy rate Cuba in 1966. There’s the concept of equality.
I think that the word democracy is not as important as collectivism, because I believe that America is a democratic society, but I don’t think it is an equitable society, necessarily. I grew up poor, and I think the inequality of wealth was much more obvious to me, and the classist nature of American society was much more apparent to me than the concept of democracy.
As an aside, I believe that collectives are not quite democracies, as they are a group thinking — that a simple majority doesn’t work very well in the collective organization. I think that there needs to be a consensus. And more of a consensus than there needs to be in democracy. In democracy, a simple majority, or perhaps a little bit more than a simple majority, can carry an idea forward. I don’t think in a collective that a simple majority, or a very nearly even split in a group, can carry the collective forward. I think there needs to be the consensus that even if you disagree, you’re still going to work forward.
And that’s the piece that isn’t necessarily part of democracy. It’s a part of society, it’s a part of a collective society; it’s perhaps the foundations of a communist society where the concept of communism is to set your ego aside for the greater good of the state. I don’t think you’ll find very many Americans that would agree to set their ego aside for the greater good of the state, but I think in collectives that’s going to be either on the surface, or very near the surface of the attitude of the group.
Michael Johnson: It’s like a sense of the common good. You’re aware of the common, of what you’re connected to, and that’s what you’re responding to.
Louis Hasbrouk: Right.
So, at a point — we’re 1975,6,7 — there’s a group of people who’ve been working together who have, in some ways, similar backgrounds or age range. I was 27 or 28. The youngest person who was involved in the very beginning was actually I think, my sister. My brother-in-law was a little older than I am, so it was a fairly tight bracket of ages. Later in Pelham Auto’s history, the age range did spread out, but in the beginning it was that small group.
And we got to the point where we really acknowledged that it was the efforts of all the individuals and not the effort of a single individual, and that people were working not for the money, but for the experience. Interestingly enough, the money — the wages — were on par with any other similar job description — certainly on par, and in some ways better. I had worked as a mechanic for independent garages, and also in dealerships, and we paid the mechanics equal money to those situations, and I think we were able to do it because there was no single individual taking...and the way we were functioning it was a consistently successful business.
We simultaneously set up the collective and incorporated the business, so that there were articles of incorporation — corporate bylaws that were filed with the state — and an agreement amongst the individuals that talked about equal ownership, and the right of a worker to have a say in the functioning and management of the company they worked in. You know a real basic right. I think one of the words we used to use was "a right to enjoy the fruit of your labors," and it was a real direct line between working there, and managing the place, and steering the place, and taking home a paycheck.
Michael Johnson: Did everybody participate in the management? Or was it just that there was good communication between those who were managing and those who weren’t.
Louis Hasbrouk: I think the business can be divided up into two areas: one is the day to day functioning of the business and the other is the management of the corporation. And the way we divided it was, to manage the corporation we met every other Tuesday evening, and that’s where the corporate decisions got made. And with discussion, with an agenda, with, to some degree or another minutes. I think we’ve taken, minutes have been taken to some degree but not necessarily ever single word that was ever said. And then the day-to-day management of a garage is usually a service manager, who's the person who stands in the office and meets the people coming in, and dependent on their abilities does some initial diagnosis of the problems, sets of up the schedule, keeps the schedule, deals with the billing. And then a shop foreman, who acts as sort of a consultant to the other mechanics — a garage full of mechanics of sort-of equal abilities might not need a shop foreman.
The way we organized it was that the service manager position rotated through the people who were capable of dealing with it. Capable was having a certain amount of mechanical expertise and being able or willing to deal with the general public. And there were, I think, at least four of us out of the 8 people that worked in the business that rotated through the service manager’s job, and I believe it was a six month rotation. And that sort of carried along for at least 10 years. Maybe not, at least 8 years.
I think that eventually, for the sake of the business, it became a little more…we had people who were really good at being service managers but were not particularly good at being actual mechanics, and so some specialization developed in the business over time, but the idea that it was important — the Tuesday corporate meetings never stopped. And hirings were always by consensus. There weren’t very many firings but the few that there were, were done as a group. No individual in the collective had hiring or firing authority. I think that as the business went along, there eventually got to be a number — a dollar amount — that sort of limited the money in a personal decision that any individual could make. It wasn’t a lot of money, but any corporate transaction over like a hundred dollars had to get approved by the group.
Michael Johnson: I’ll go back just a little bit. It’s an interesting combination that I’m sensing. You were like the entrepreneur of the group, and so a business got organized because of that capacity that you had. But most entrepreneurs are very individualistic and they’re out for maximum gain, but you seem to have drawn a group of people who could relate to this whole phenomenon of becoming a collective. It seems from the way you’re describing it, that it wasn’t a foreign idea. It was something that kind of emerged from the people who got involved with you. So that’s an interesting combination, if I’m hearing you correctly. If you could comment on that?
Louis Hasbrouk: To me, there’s a difference being an entrepreneur and being adventurous. And I think real early on… well, let’s back up a minute.
I’m adventurous but, I’ve never been able to make money. I’ve never accumulated a lot of money. You know, I live comfortably but if I buy a stock — and I’ve bought a couple of small chunks of stock — the company immediately when bankrupt...most recently General Motors. I sort of blame myself. So, I was able to see my limitations, and I was able to see the other people’s abilities in areas where I lacked ability. So rather than characterize me as an entrepreneur, I think it would be: I was adventurous, and I can figure things out. I can look at a situation and see the various aspects, and sort of extrapolate to an end, but I’m not great with details. I’ve gotten better at details as I’ve gotten older but I’m more of a sort of an overview.
And even in the very beginning, as a sole proprietor, I leaned on other people to help me with the more mundane details: putting money in the bank. Putting money in the bank doesn’t seem like a mundane detail but it was one of the first things that, even as a sole proprietor, I delegated because other people were better able at emptying the cash drawer, filling out the slips, and taking the money down to the bank. So as this group evolved, I think that I had my contribution. It wasn’t a package deal — it wasn’t all that there needed to be to be successful, and other people brought their strengths to the organization but might not have been a package deal. And I can see the relationships between myself and other people; I can see the relationships between some of the other individuals, and the ways that it kind of created a very cohesive unit.
Let me back up to history again. In '77 we incorporated, and for the next several years it grew, and grew, and grew. We built the first building in '74; we ran out of space; we built another building in '79; the business continued to grow; another building in 1985 and I think, at its high point, there were 18 or 19 employees. We retrenched a little bit and gave up, got out of the second building so that we then had two buildings. But quite a successful business that went day-to-day without a lot of glitches: consistent income, expenses under control, steadily put a little money in the bank. I worked at Pelham Auto from 1972 to 1992. I think that some of the people that have come in might have gotten more years in there now than I did, because I’ve been out doing other things since then. But that kind of continuity, I think, was possible because of the success of the business — the basic success of the business.
I believe, and I’ll talk more about this later, that the success of the business came from the collective as much as it did from being in the garage business where cars are breaking all the time.
Michael Johnson: How so?
Louis Hasbrouk: A big piece of why the business was successful is because we were able to get a loyal following of customers. And we got a loyal following of customers because we treated people well. And we treated people well because we had, in a sense, gathered together because we wanted to be treated well. I don’t think anybody could conceptualize that you would treat yourselves well, as a collective, and not turn around and not treat your clientele well. It’s a left foot/right foot, hand-in-glove: it really meshed together. People constantly complimented us on how well we dealt with people — that we were just so nice to deal with. You know, I don’t think that anybody in the outfit was religious, but the concept of treating other people the way you would like to be treated worked internally and also externally. And I think one other reason that it was as successful as it was, was because the people that were drawn to it were... I don’t know how to exactly characterize it without sounding elitist, but they were thinking about something more than a paycheck. You had to put in extra time to be a part of the collective. At the very least, you had to give up every other Tuesday night for the rest of your life, or for as long as you worked there. And there was a fair amount of process, which can be kind of laborious. And so the people that came and worked were people who cared about more than just a paycheck. Interestingly, some people came there caring only about a paycheck and grew into the expanded environment; some people came and didn’t want any piece of the expanded environment, but the people that we did, the people that stayed were interested in more than just, you know, Friday payday.
Michael Johnson: Those people who came just for the paycheck but then grew into it, what kind of things happened to them? What was there that they connected to, that enabled that to trigger?
Louis Hasbrouk: I’m not sure exactly why some of the people stayed. Some people that I didn’t think were going to stay stayed, and some people that I thought might have stayed, didn’t seem to enjoy it. One really specific aspect was that the service manager never told anybody what to do. They never ordered anybody to do something. The protocol was ask. You know? That’s a really important thing: it’s we. It was always we, it was never “I.” And “will you?" not “do this.” And there’s a choice. And if you have to do this now, there’s a reason. You know, “why should I do this?" "Because I said to.” You know, that’s not something that you hear, even couched in other language. If a certain individual has to do a certain task, there needs to be some reasoning behind it. And again, that’s like a consensus between the service manager and the mechanic, that the mechanic is going to give a certain amount of the role to the service manager, and the service manager is going to turn around and hand a part of the process to the mechanic, but there’s a consensus there.
Michael Johnson: It seems like what you’re describing is a very profound respect for every individual’s autonomy, as well as people having a sense of the collective whole.
Louis Hasbrouk: I never thought of it as autonomy. But it’s a kind of a basic respect. That respect for the individual in the context of setting your individuality aside to be part of the collective. I think a really successful collective would be one that was able to acknowledge the individuality of all the members, and still keep enough direction to succeed.
One idea that grew later in the process, was that it really was a business, and really was a lot the same as any business out there. We competed in a business environment. There was our garage; there was a garage to the east, and there was a garage to the west, and there was garage to the north, and we, without sort of disclosing any internals, we had to present a front to the world, because we live very much in a capitalist society, we had to be able to present to the world an attractive place to get your car fixed, that was reliable and reasonably priced. I think some of the people that came later in the process brought more knowledge of that. I don’t know how many of the initial group had really gone out and worked for other places. I had been at another garage for a year, and I had been at the Volkswagen dealer for probably 8 months. But slugging it out for 10 or 15 years in, you know, Joe’s garage, and some of the people that came later had done that.
[They] had worked for the Sonoco station down the street, or one of the other repair shops in the area, for an extended period of time, and they brought more of the ability to see in from the outside. So, even though it was a real stable business, it was a constantly evolving business. And I think that there was a whole lot of luck involved too. I really believe that there was a ton of luck involved in the success because there were times when I think that if things had gone just a little bit another way, things might have changed. That, and hard work went a long ways towards the survival. And the people that are there now work hard. You know, they work as hard as we ever did in the beginning. But, you know, to get over some specific hurdles, I think there needed to be some luck.
The retrenchment — it wasn’t a real retrenchment, but there was a point where there were more people there than there needed to be to have a clean business, and people drifted off. Nobody got fired, but there was a point when people drifted away. There was a smaller group left. If the business had stayed and continued to grow, it might have been beyond the ability to support that business, for the people who were dependent on it. It might have changed a lot. And that wasn’t by design, that pretty much just happened.
Michael Johnson: There’s the sense of being attracted to the collective experience, and you’ve put a lot of emphasis on people being aware that this is a business and really knowing that it’s got to run as a business. Um, I’m wondering if there was also a strong element of real pride and craftsmanship?
Louis Hasbrouk: I mean there’s lots of mechanics who are very proud of their abilities. The pride? There was an organizational pride, in that it could be spread around differently than an individual pride, because when you brought your car to get fixed, a bunch of people contributed to the piece of making your car better. And so, rather than Joe from Joe’s Garage standing out front and taking credit for it, the credit was, because of the collective nature. There was the understanding that it was the collective that had succeeded when somebody brought their car in, got it fixed and drove away happy.
Michael Johnson (2021). Enjoying the Fruit of Collective Labor: An Interview with Louis Hasbrouk of Pelham Auto. Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO). https://geo.coop/articles/enjoying-fruit-collective-labor